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The Sorry, Misbegotten State of the Alpha Male

The fear of the beta makes no sense — and maybe that’s the point

Two days after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, I made a list of things I needed to learn. Namely:

  • How to catch, clean and cook a fish.
  • How to grow my own vegetables.
  • How to build a fire.
  • How to deliver a child.
  • How to find water.
  • How to treat a snake bite.

I was in a state of self-aggrandizing existential panic, caught up in a dystopian fantasy (jackboots, mushroom clouds) that belied the true nature of evil: old, boring, slow and shitty. I’m not saying things turned out better than I thought they would on November 10, 2016. But the future that actually came to pass wasn’t one that allowed for heroics, at least not the kind I perversely hoped for. It wasn’t a world that could be saved by one man.

Our imagined futures are reflections of our imagined pasts. If a large enough catastrophe has its way with the world, then we suppose things will revert to how they were at the dawn of humanity. How many post-apocalyptic fictions track a lone man, accompanied only by women, children and other fragile beings he collects along the way? Think Mad Max, Viggo Mortensen in The Road, Will Smith in I Am Legend. And whenever this hero encounters a larger community, something that requires him to surrender a degree of autonomy, don’t we grow uneasy? It doesn’t take long, after all, for the hero to realize all is not as it seems: there’s cannibalism, perhaps, or genetic experiments, or some other dark secret. (See, like, every story arc in The Walking Dead.) In any case, we only rest easy when the hero is back on his own. This is, we feel, how things are supposed to be.

After all, for most of human history, we dwelt in small nomadic groups, with an alpha male as each group’s leader. He had ultimate authority over the women, children and beta males. But he constantly had to fend off attempts by the strongest of the beta males to usurp his role. This unending competition sharpened our evolutionary advantage as a species and made us capable of great things — the pyramids, the Apollo space program, a machine that can cook all at once the discrete elements of an Egg McMuffin.

But then, according to this story, the alpha male’s evolutionary success got the best of him. In his Darwinian fight to stay at the top of the food chain, he forged a modern world that no longer seems to need him. There’s little room in a hyper-connected, hyper-networked world for a lone alpha male. His chest-thumping games of honor seem obsolete now that we have global supply chains and a social safety net. Not to mention, women have less reason and are less willing to perform the subservient role that made the alpha male possible in the first place.

So he is increasingly confused — told he should be more sensitive, to share with others, that he should build relationships rather than assert dominance. Essentially, he is told that he shouldn’t behave as an alpha male. The way he sees it, he must either acquiesce and become a beta male forever, or cling to his alpha nature and become alienated from the world he helped create.

* * * * *

Ever since he was a boy working on the family farm, Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe (Thor for short, we hope) was fascinated by chickens. He went on to become a zoologist, and his first major publication was a 1922 paper based on his years spent observing fowl. Thor argued that whenever there were two chickens, they had to decide who would eat first and who would have to wait and eat second; whether Chicken A would be the “despot” over Chicken B, or Chicken B would be the despot over Chicken A.

The problem was compounded when there were several chickens, but the basic question remained the same: Which chicken would be the despot over all the other chickens? Thor found that the chickens established a Hackrichtung or Hackliste by intermittently hacking each other with their beaks. Whoever was best at hacking their fellow chickens became the despot, followed by the chicken next-best at hacking, etc., etc.

The common English translation for Thor’s Hackrichtung is, of course, the pecking order, and the paper became hugely influential in the study of animal behavior. Scientists followed Thor’s lead and observed how other species determined their pecking order, their despot, or as a 1938 paper on albino mice first put it, their “alpha male.”

The term entered the mainstream in the 1970s with the publication of the biologist L. David Mech’s book The Wolf. The alpha wolf at the head of his pack became an icon of a rugged American masculinity many feared was being undermined by deindustrialization and the women’s rights movement. For instance, when George Blanda retired from professional football in 1976 having scored more points than any other player in history, a columnist for the San Francisco Enquirer began his eulogy for Blanda’s career with a five-paragraph meditation on Canis lupus. “Always the Alpha Male will find a way to survive… always he will keep the pack together.”

The columnist suggested the aging quarterback was a dying breed, now being replaced by “slick, lanky” kids “anxious to make $500,000 in bonus payments,” and who resorted to illicit drugs when all Blanda needed “to get up for a game” was snacking on Polish sausage and listening to the national anthem. The headline read, “Blanda the Lone Wolf, Even to the End.”

The alpha male found his way into political discourse as well. During the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, conservative columnist John Leo cracked that Bill Clinton was the real victim, because, “as an alpha male, he is pushed around hormonally, quite against his will, in a way that all the beta and omega males who go into journalism can’t even imagine.” A year and a half later, it was exaggeratedly reported that the Al Gore campaign had hired feminist writer Naomi Wolf as a consultant, and that she said Gore needed to get out from under Clinton’s shadow and assert his status as an alpha male, someone who “leads the pack and not… simply follows.” Gore started wearing earth tones and cowboy boots and speaking at a frenetic, as-non-Al-Gore-as-possible pace, while the media cackled.

If pop-culture depictions of lupine behavioral psychology had a touch of the anthropomorphic, this was the case even more so for primates, especially after the 1982 publication of Dutch ethologist Frans de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics.

The implication of likening chimps to humans is that humans are little more than chimps. We coalesce around an alpha male, who is always at risk of being toppled by an upstart beta. In his book Our Inner Ape (2005), de Waal details how a pair of beta-male chimps at the Arnhem Zoo held down the alpha male, punctured his scrotal sac “with their powerful canine teeth” and “squeezed out” his testicles.

To be frank, we love this sort of shit. See how castration is gleefully used as a political tool in Fight Club (a powerful man pinned to the floor, a rubber band and a knife), and how Edward Norton’s character can only reclaim his manhood once the skyscrapers implode, effectively castrating the global financial order.

How much, though, can we actually learn about human nature from wolves and chimps? It’s worth noting that in 1999, while the press was having a field day over Wolfman Al, David Mech wrote a landmark paper saying he’d gotten wolves wrong. Upon further observation of wolves in the wild — not in captivity — Mech realized that wolves didn’t travel in packs headed by an alpha male and female. Instead, wolves traveled in family units, headed by mommy wolf and daddy wolf. What he once thought were “beta” wolves were just, well, the mommy and daddy wolves’ kids.

Meanwhile, primatologists are cautious of inferring too much about humans from chimpanzees. We’re close relatives, sure, but our common ancestors diverged 5 to 7 million years ago, plenty of time for the two species to evolve radically different psychologies. (Evolution’s slow, but it ain’t that slow.) And humans are just as closely related to bonobos, who typically resolve their problems through fucking instead of fighting and live in a female-dominated society. Indeed, the top male bonobo has a lower status than the bottom female, and he only obtains that status through the machinations of his mother.

The truth is we pick and choose the scientific findings that confirm the story we already believe about ourselves. When Franz de Waal gave a lecture on bonobos, detailing their female-dominated, “make love, not war” society, a prominent German biologist stood up at the end and shouted, “What’s wrong with those males?!?!” He found de Waal’s response — that the male bonobos seemed perfectly happy having sex all the time instead of clawing out each other’s testicles — less than satisfactory. The idea that humans were kin to these beta apes was just embarrassing.

But it makes no more sense, really, to embrace the bonobo instead of the chimp as the key to understanding humanity. Again, evolution acts at a quicker pace than we might think. If bonobos and chimps have developed such different dominance hierarchies since their ancestors diverged from each other 2 million years ago, then how different from either of them must humans be, who have had 5 to 7 million years to develop their own hierarchies? Plus, popular writing about bonobos exaggerates how peaceful they are and how much they can tell us about human psychology. It’s a hippie alternative to the alpha-chimp myth, but a myth nonetheless.

Forget the science, then. Let’s accept the terms of the alpha-male myth: that it’s human nature to be organized in top-down hierarchies headed by alpha males. Fine. But why do those who crow the loudest about saving the alpha male want to convert beta males to alphadom? Aren’t there supposed to be more betas than alphas?

I mean, let’s posit that out of a group of 100 prehistoric humans, there’d be a single alpha male at the head of the pack, ringed by a half-dozen or so beta males. We’d expect, then, for no more than 2 percent of men today to be alphas. Yet the cartoonist/MRA activist Scott Adams, who constantly decries the suppression of the alpha male, estimates that 20 percent of men are alphas! And if all the bodybuilding forum and RedPill Reddit folks had their way, an outright majority of men would be alphas. That would surely be madness. If anything, a return to the “natural order” would require the forcible conversion of many self-avowed alphas to betadom.

So what are they getting at? Why invoke the pseudoscience of the wolf pack if that isn’t what they really want? Perhaps it’s a way for folks to reclaim something wild about themselves in a time when we feel increasingly alienated from our animal-ness. Thinking of yourself as part-gorilla provides the same sort of thrill that white dudes get when they claim to be part-Native American.

It’s a way of signaling (pseudo-scientifically in the former case, racistly in the latter) they haven’t been fully tamed by civilization. Which means, paradoxically, that when the apocalypse comes they’ll be the ones who restore civilization.

This sort of thinking lends itself to conspiracy theorizing. The alpha male only recognizes an apocalypse as such if its chief victim is himself; climate change, with its displacement of millions of brown poor people, doesn’t meet that criteria. Instead the apocalypse will be a world where, as Donald Trump warned two years ago, men are “petrified to speak to women anymore.” The end times will be marked by a wave of false allegations of sexual harassment and rape against defenseless men, or by the mass imprisonment of professors who misgender their trans and nonbinary students.

Followed by the imprisonment or enslavement of all men.

RedPillers concede their world is, like the imagined nomadics tribe of old, ruled by a small fraction of elites — but they contend that the one percent running the world now aren’t true alpha males. Listen to how Jordan Peterson and Joe Rogan talk about male feminists who climb to the top of the dominance hierarchy the only way they can — by throwing their fellow man under the bus. They’re “sneaky,” Peterson says, which blows Rogan’s mind, who confirms they really are “sneaky” and exclaims again how “sneaky” they are. Peterson adds that they’re “creepy,” too.

Of course, if you’re talking about an elite group of sneaky non-alphas tricking the world into letting them run it and suppressing the real alphas, it won’t be long before you’re talking about Jews — just scroll down any RedPill forum. Hell, here are some quotes all from the same Reddit thread:

  • The true goal is global beta slavery.”
  • “The corporatists are pushing feminism in order to drive down wages and increase consumer spending.”
  • A castrated society in which the majority of men have been feminized has little-to-no chance of resisting globalism.”
  • “The formation of a global super-government which has sole control over the world’s factors of production and rules over the Gentile people.”
  • “How much do you know about the Rothschilds?”

The most pervasive problem, though, with alpha-male mythology is that, for all its talk about reclaiming our animal natures, it elides the fact that we’re social animals. The reason it’s not enough for 2 or even 20 percent of men to be alphas is that the real goal isn’t to replicate prehistoric society; the point isn’t to be the member of a community, much less the head of a community. It’s to be in charge of your possessions — your hobbies, your car, your terabyte of porn. Every man is an alpha but with no packs to lead, only their own brands to manage. Or if the alpha has a pack, it’s him and his wife/girlfriend/partner; he becomes obsessed with owning her in the same way he owns his guns, shoes, bottles of Scotch, etc. And as women need him less and less, he grows ever more intent on owning them.

The alpha male, in short, has way more to do with changing gender norms and late capitalism than with evolutionary biology. It would’ve made little sense for the leader of a nomadic tribe to be utterly self-sufficient, because they would’ve had a whole community’s worth of talents, skills and interests to draw on. Someone would be better at hunting, another better at telling the good berries from the bad, another better at reading the sky. Only when you’re reduced to a personal brand, divorced from a larger community, does it make sense to pretend you’re a master of everything.

And it’s a fantasy not everyone can afford. Becoming a doomsday prepper is a huge investment that’s unrealistic for folks who don’t have glamping money. I sure as hell haven’t had the time or resources to learn any of those skills from my 2016 fever-dream listicle. But the impulse still lingers in my pursuit of a steady career, of acclaim from my peers and a slimmer waistline; my political opinions and taste in coffee. I try to carve out some little microsphere where I can afford to be an alpha.

The neoliberal fantasy of the alpha male is a recipe for nihilism. It is, in fact, antithetical to the instinct humans have evolved over the millennia to build trust and community. The modern alpha male believes he must either succumb to society’s demands and thereby deny his own supposed nature, or turn his back on society and thereby stay true to himself.

Neither path seems tenable. Indeed, the only tenable future is to blow the whole thing up — to create a wasteland where the alpha male can once again thrive. By the campfire, I tell my sons of life before the Great Pulse. In the morning, after a breakfast, I kiss my wife on the cheek and go bow-hunting.